There was a fair amount of media head-scratching Monday morning when Comedy Central announced the choice of a South African comedian named Trevor Noah—a virtual unknown to American television audiences—as the next “fake news” anchor who’ll succeed Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, the Viacom-owned cable network’s most celebrated franchise.
“The whole thing has probably been one of the hottest debates in the comedy world,” said prominent showbiz manager Jonathan Brandstein, whose clients comprise a blue-chip roster of successful standup comedians. “Who will fill Jon Stewart’s slot?”
The handsome, Johannesburg-born Noah, 31—who made his American late-night television debut in March 2012 on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and in December signed on as The Daily Show’s “senior foreign correspondent”—was definitely not the expected answer.
The rumored candidates for the plum job included Daily Show regulars Samantha Bee, her husband, Jason Jones, and—according to a Monday morning tweet by ESPN commentator Bill Simmons—popular comics Amy Poehler and Louis CK as well as Comedy Central personality Amy Schumer.
“This search turned into a fun guessing game,” Brandstein said. “Comedy Central keeps things very close to the chest. There would have been lots of different managers I know, all trying to pitch various clients if they were doing their jobs.”
Comedian Joy Behar—a familiar television personality as an original panelist on ABC’s The View, who went on to host cable interview shows on HLN and Current TV—also was not surprised, but for a different reason.
“I never heard of him, he’s not an American, and I don’t know anything else about him. But he’s a guy—and that is the only thing you have to know,” Behar told The Daily Beast. “People were talking as if there was any scintilla of a chance they would put a woman in there. Of course not. It’s Comedy Central! That channel appeals to the male audience.”
And even though Comedy Central has given series to female comics such as Schumer and Sarah Silverman, and currently features female stars on the sitcom Broad City, “women are not for this spot,” Behar says. “Not for Colbert. Not for Letterman. Not for Jimmy Kimmel. Not for Craig Ferguson. Not for Conan O’Brien.”
Despite the success of Chelsea Handler on the E! channel before she left for Netflix, “with these primo jobs, they’re not gonna give it to a woman. No way!”
Attributing the dearth of women hosting late-night shows to the sexism endemic to showbiz—and an inchoate fear by television executives that male viewers won’t watch them—Behar insisted, “It’s anathema to the networks.”
Asked about the absence of women late-night comedy hosts generally, and whether a woman was seriously considered to host The Daily Show, Comedy Central President Michele Ganeless stoutly refused to address the hot-button issue, responding as though she would rather have a poke in the eye.
But Ganeless—who, after all, is not a man—was eager to talk up Trevor Noah in a brief phone conversation with The Daily Beast.
“It has been a great joy to spend time with him, he is truly an extraordinary guy,” she said. “You can hear his brain working as he’s talking. What’s also remarkable about him is he thinks on his feet. He’s a true student of the human condition; he’s a citizen of the world; his comedy is very layered, and he’s a very quick study.”
Ganeless continued: “He’s done standup all over the world, and he doesn’t sit in his hotel room when he goes to a new city. He gets out and watches people, and then puts them in as part of his act that night.”
ESPN’s Simmons, who claimed that Poehler, Schumer, and Louis CK were each offered The Daily Show and turned it down, tweeted about Noah’s pick: “Young/cheap/upside was smart audible.”
Ganeless declined to comment on Simmons’s speculation; nor did she offer much insight into the search for Stewart’s replacement since The Daily Show host’s Feb. 10 announcement that he plans to retire after more than 16 years at the anchor desk.
It’s clear, however, from other sources, that Stewart played a major role in the choice, inviting Noah to join the show as a contributor more than a year ago.
“It was difficult and a little bittersweet because you’re replacing somebody who can’t be replaced,” Ganeless told The Daily Beast. “Jon Stewart is like no other, so we had to find the next great voice. When Jon told us he was going to leave after this year we sat down and thought about what it takes to host this show and quickly realized there was only a short list of people who could do that. It’s a very specific skill set. You have to be an incredibly talented and prolific comedian in order to sit in that seat and do it justice.”
Ganeless added: “The short list is a very well-kept secret, but Trevor was on it.”
Comic and Vice television host Jim Norton—who has spent time with Noah at New York’s Comedy Cellar and on the defunct Opie & Anthony radio show where Norton was a regular—also praised the selection.
“He’s a funny guy, he looks good on camera, he’s very original, so it’s not a surprising choice,” Norton told The Daily Beast. “The fact that he was able to develop into a good comedian so fast is a pretty strong statement about how good he is. His material is well thought out. He’s got a great energy. And he doesn’t force his opinions; he’s certainly not a guy who muscles his jokes—which is perfect for television.”
Norton added: “He’s smart, and he’s got an interesting take on things. He comes from a place that is really unique—the kind of place where most comedians don’t come from. Even the ones who come from a bad environment here in America don’t come from active segregation.”
Noah, whose mother is a black South African of the Xhosa ethnic group while his father is a white Swiss-German, grew up in the black Soweto townships during apartheid, when his parents’ race-mixing was illegal. They risked arrest if they were seen together in public, and his mother was periodically thrown in jail.
“I was born a crime,” he notes during his routine, in which he displays his sharp eye and keen ear for cultural observation along with a talent for pitch-perfect mimicry; his ghetto and white-bread American accents are pretty convincing, along with his Latino and Russian impersonations. Off stage and on he speaks fluent German along with five different South African languages.
Noah has been toiling as a standup for only about eight years—an astonishingly brief work history to have reached the pinnacle in a business where it often takes decades to hone material and performance skills. In the past couple of years, he has been appearing at comedy clubs all across the United States—more than 40 states at last count, more than many Americans have visited.
A big star in his native South Africa, and a celebrity of sorts in Europe and other countries where he regularly performs—he was in transit from a gig in Dubai to a gig in Oman as the news of his new job broke in The New York Times—Noah acknowledged during a recent Comedy Central podcast that he knows next to nothing about domestic American politics.
Ganeless said that Noah’s apparent lack of familiarity with The Daily Show’s bread and butter—on which Stewart is something of an obsessive, if not a scholar—won’t be a problem.
“He will quickly bring his own specific take to it,” she predicted. “He’s a student of our culture, as well as of the world, and, working with the deep team that writes for the show, he will have no trouble pointing out the absurdities of our political system.”
Noah’s start date—and Stewart’s depature—were the only things Ganeless seemed unsure of.
“That’s a good question,” she said. “As soon as we figure that out, we’ll let you know.”